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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Podcasts and RBM - 2: Audio Podcasts from the BBC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation and National Public Radio

Greg Armstrong --

Radio programmes from the BBC, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and National Public Radio provide stimulating insight into how other people work with and interpret indicators and results. The second of three posts on podcasts surveys the programmes available from these three broadcasters that are relevant to Results-Based Management discussions.

Level of Difficulty: Moderate-complex, but entertaining
Primarily useful for: Anyone who wants or needs fresh insights on results and indicators
Length: Usually Vary from 15 minutes to an hour. (mp3 format)
Limitations: Audio podcasts are difficult to reference, and follow up, compared to other media.

Who these programmes are for:

Some project managers dread discussions of indicator data, possibly because they rarely collect the data.  But many project stakeholders, and those managers who do take the process of indicator development and data collection seriously, often seem energized by the discussions.  Indicator development discussions reveal the different priorities stakeholders have, and what they think results really mean;  and they challenge participants to think critically and creatively about data sources, data validity and the practicality of data collection.   For these people, audio podcasts -- available free on the internet -- can provide though-provoking insights into both results and indicator development.

This is the second of three posts on audio podcasts.  The first post, originally published May 28, 2011 dealt with the advantages, disadvantages, and mechanics of downloading, listening to, and using podcasts for RBM.  This post surveys results-relevant podcasts available from the BBC,  Radio Australia, and National Public Radio.  The final post will review one programme, BBC’s More or Less, in more detail.

Thousands of podcasts to choose from

There are hundreds of possible programmes, and thousands of individual episodes of programmes available for listening, free on the internet.  The BBC website alone had 262 separate available programmes, in January 2011, and by June  had 288 programmes with material available for download.    Of these, roughly were in categories such as music, comedy, sports, religion or children's programming. 122 programmes fell into BBC's "factual" category  in January 2011.  By June 2011 there were 133 factual programmes listed and most of these had  dozens, sometimes hundreds of individual episodes available either for download or listening online -- some  news programmes, in multiple languages, others about consumer affairs, arts, literature, economics or history. 

The BBC radio 4 website itself suggests that there are over 9,000 episodes of different programmes just in this  “factual” category available for listening in one of its formats, listing them alphabetically and by genre.  Compared to the BBC podcast homepage, which organizes the available programmes into more recognizable categories, the 9,000 available podcasts may seem like a huge and unfathomable number to wade through -- but these radio 4 episodes are worth skimming. Some individual episodes buried there -- such the interesting 2008 Peer Review in the Dock -- do not appear to be listed on the podcast page.

But this blog is about Results-Based Management and, given that we all have limited time available for listening, the following are suggestions of some of the programmes I think are worth listening to for useful -- but also entertaining -- insights into the kind of work we do when we think about results and how to describe, measure or report on them:

Results-relevant Podcasts from the BBC

BBC's More or Less: Behind the Stats, is by far the programme with the most direct link to indicators and results based management, of any I have found.  Each 24-minute episode usually includes 3-4 issues, all of which are directly relevant to how results and indicators can be interpreted. 22 individual episodes dating back to September 2010 are available for download as I write this, and 82 more going back to 2005 are available for listening online. I will review More or Less in more detail in my next post.

Thinking Allowed, a half-hour programme focusing on social science research, currently has a total of 228 episodes available -- 40 in downloadable MP3 format, dating back to September 2010.  The Thinking Allowed Archives includes broadcasts going back as far as January 2007, using the BBC iPlayer.

Documentaries  is by far the most prolifically accessible of all of the BBC podcasts.  It had 88 24- minute episodes available, all downloadable, at the end of June -- and this is just for 2011. Another 660 downloadable programmes in MP3 format in the archive from 2007-2010.  Finding these archived materials is not perfectly intuitive, but you can get access to them by going to the BBC factual/history  link where, among many other programmes, the Documentaries for 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 are listed.

Material World, a BBC science programme had 41 half-hour episodes available for downloading the last time I looked, and 350 more in the archives for which the listener will require either RealPlayer or another media player such as VLC, capable of handling the Realplayer files.

Results-relevant Podcasts from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC Radio)

ABC radio’s Counterpoint, which is second only to BBC’s More or Less in its relevance to results discussions, delivers weekly one-hour programmes, and also "unbundles" the components – breaks the programme up into shorter segments which can be downloaded or listened to individually.  Thus, you might want to listen to just that part of the Counterpoint February 14, 2011 broadcast on the “decline effect” -- or why much apparently validated published research can’t be trusted – but not those parts of the same  broadcast dealing with Australian politics, limits to  online publishing freedom,  or the morality of long-term debt

Hiding the pigs…

The only quibble I have with Counterpoint’s unbundling

For example, the June 6, 2011 episode of Counterpoint  included three components:  “You’ve got to be rich to work for free”, “Hunters, the real conservationists” and “David Burchell: Anger, politics and the new media”.  Looking at these, you might not, (and I did not) expect that one dealt with the fascinating issue of how Australians are trying to deal with 23 million highly intelligent feral pigs that are roaming the country.   I’m not sure this has anything to do with RBM, but it’s interesting!  When I pointed this out to my colleague Anne Bernard, who first led me to Counterpoint, and someone who listens to every episode in its entirety, her reply was “Armstrong, you have the attention span of a gnat!  Just download the whole programme!”  

But, if, like me, your attention span argues against downloading an hour of material just to find out about the pigs, you can, as I did, just download the feral pig episode

And if the pigs don't interest you, there are a number of other topics of potential relevance for results and indicator discussions in recent available podcasts of Counterpoint:

  • The December 6, 2010 episode dealing with the relationship between  expenditures on education and educational outcomes

  • The June 20, 2011 broadcast which contains two interesting indicator-related segments: one on how the quality of data collection instruments can affect data quality, and with it our conclusions about results; and another on what data tell us about the relative contributions to project results and organizational success made by senior management, mid-level project managers, and creative personnel.

Ockham’s Razor is another ABC programme which takes a slightly more academic approach to issues, with individuals making presentations on simple truths behind complex issues, rather than being interviewed.  The programme has 240 13-minute episodes going back to January 2006 available for download, and a large number of transcripts for programmes as far back as 1997. These include, among much else, discussion of the difficulties of relating and working with a bizarre field of indicators for earthquake prediction, how simple language and basic math can bring policy debates into perspective, and why effective and simple solutions to policy issues are not implemented.

As an example of how many episodes are available, and on what variety of topics, a search for "evidence" in the Ockham’s Razor archives, produces a list of several hundred presentations.

A Results-Relevant Programme from National Public Radio

Radiolab  – a programme from the U.S. National Public Radio produces a one hour episode every two weeks, and these can be downloaded as one entire episode, or you can choose, as with ABC’s Counterpoint, to download component parts of the episode, lasting10-30 minutes each.  The format is much more story-telling than "More or Less" or "Counterpoint", and while dramatic liberties may sometimes be taken with the narratives, there is a lot of interesting material here.  In total, by the end of June 2011, there were 46 one-hour episodes available. Not all of them are obviously related to results or indicators, but they are all worthy of attention.  Two of the episodes I found particularly interesting were:
  • The June  2010 Radiolab episode “Oops”  – which tells three stories about unintended and very negative results, growing out of projects with only good intentions, and 
  • The October 2010 Radiolab episode on "Cities" particularly the component called “It’s Alive?”  that describes how speed (of talking, and walking) can be used as an indicator of city culture   and how physicists have used walking speed to predict city size, average income, crime rates and a number of other variables related to the culture of different cities.

The bottom line:

BBC’s "More or Less" and ABC’s "Counterpoint" provide a good starting point for anyone wanting a little entertainment with their results and indicator discussions. There are dozens of other programmes out there that I haven’t covered, and no doubt many more that I am not even aware of.  Many of these may be of interest to you, and may also, as an incidental byproduct of your attention, provide new ways of looking at results and indicators.

Further listening

Referenced here:

BBC: More or Less: Behind the Stats
BBC: Thinking Allowed
BBC: Documentaries
BBC: Material World 
ABC: Counterpoint 
ABC: Ockham’s Razor
NPR: Radiolab
NPR: Krulwich Wonders

Other radio programmes of potential interest include:

BBC: The Reith Lecture Archives 
BBC: Start the Week, with Andrew Marr
BBC: Four Thought
BBC: File on Four 
Podcasts from the Guardian
Podcasts from the Scientific American 


Greg Armstrong is a Results-Based Management specialist who focuses on the use of clear language in RBM training, and in the creation of usable planning, monitoring and reporting frameworks.  For links to more Results-Based Management Handbooks and Guides, to to the RBM Training website

This post edited July 4, 2011 to update links.

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